8 Essential Terms You Need to Know to Have a Successful Catholic-Protestant Conversation


By Matt Swaim,

Over at the Coming Home Network, we find ourselves in the middle of conversations between Protestants and Catholics on a daily basis. Often, communication can break down over the simplest things: one person will use a word that means something different to someone else, or two people will use different words to talk about the same concept. Because of this, we’ve tried to define a few key terms that can cause confusion between Christians of good will in ecumenical conversations.

Here’s some words that mean different things to Protestants than they do to Catholics:



Protestant: Often refers to the railings at the front of the Church gathering space. For example, if an invitation is given during the service for people to come and kneel at the altar, they’re being invited to kneel at those rails. Since protestant worship spaces very rarely have pew kneelers, this is usually the only occasion when kneeling is part of the corporate worship experience.

Catholic: The altar is the big table at the front of the Church, where the core of the liturgical action takes place. The altar both represents Christ, and is the place where the elements of bread and wine are consecrated into the body of Christ.



Protestant: The prayer at the end of the service that precedes the dismissal.

Catholic: Sometimes colloquially refers to the same as above, but also denotes a specific liturgy connected to Eucharistic adoration, at the end of exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. It involves the removal of a consecrated host from a monstrance to a place of repose in the tabernacle, a blessing, and the singing of Eucharistic hymns.



Protestant: Often refers to daily devotions, a time set aside for personal prayer and reflection. Many choose to schedule these first thing in the morning, or at the end of the day before falling asleep. Popular classical devotional books include “My Utmost for his Highest” by Oswald Chambers, and “Streams in the Desert” by LB Cowman.

Catholic: In many cases, this is an external piety that is exercised outside of the liturgy. It can involve saints, memorized prayers, relics and even aspects of Christ’s passion. Examples of Catholic devotions are the Rosary, Stations of the Cross, and Divine Mercy.



Protestant: Being devout, pious or showing reverence to God. Sometimes this term is used derogatorily to criticize those who seem to favor adherence to rules over a personal relationship with Jesus.

Catholic: While it can mean the same as above, it can also refer to someone who has taken a vow with an order as a sister, brother, monk, nun or friar. Someone who has committed to these vocations is referred to as having answered the call to “religious life.”


Different Words used by Protestants and Catholics that mean the same thing:

Protestant: “Unspoken Prayer Request”
Catholic: “Special Intention”

This usually means that someone wants to lift up in prayer either a personal struggle, an illness or tragedy, or some other matter to prayer, without revealing specifics. This is primarily done to protect the confidentiality of the party being lifted up in prayer.


Protestant: Fellowship Hall
Catholic: Parish Hall

The community’s gathering space for everything from potlucks to fish fries to ice cream socials. A multi-purpose area that can comfortably house both Bible studies and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.


Protestant: Sermon
Catholic: Homily

This is the part of the service when the minister or priest gives a teaching to the people gathered for worship. In protestant services, this is often the key focus of the weekly gathering, and can go as long as an hour, depending on the way the service is structured. At Catholic Masses, this part of the liturgy is much shorter, since the main focus of the celebration is the consecration and distribution of the Eucharist.


Protestant: The Lord’s Prayer
Catholic: The Our Father

Same prayer, same words. In Catholic parlance, a prayer is usually named after the first words (Hail Mary, Glory Be, etc.). Protestant and Catholic doxologies are slightly different: Protestants often close with “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever,” while Catholics typically close with “For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours, now and forever.”


There’s a lively discussion in our CHNetwork Community forums about other terms whose meanings can be lost in translation during Protestant-Catholic discussions- please feel welcome to stop by and add your thoughts!

the coming home network international PNGThe Coming Home Network International was established to help inquiring non-Catholic clergy as well as laity come home to the Catholic Church. In particular, The Coming Home Network seeks to assist non-Catholic clergy who often face difficulties and struggles during their journeys. Find more information at www.chnetwork.org

This article was written by Matt Swaim of The Coming Home Network International. Follow him on Twitter @mattswaim



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